Almost six months after it began the last battle against the last ISIS enclave near the Euphrates River began on March 1. ISIS is confined to a tiny area of tents and buildings. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the US-led Coalition expect the battle to end in several days.
The SDF and coalition launched a major operation to defeat ISIS in a small area along the Euphrates in September 2018. It has been a difficult campaign against the hard core of ISIS supporters. In addition, sand storms and weather slowed the advance last fall. Political considerations, including a Turkish threat to launch operations against the SDF in northern Syria in October, also caused the operation to stop.
For the SDF, the last battle has been difficult and harrowing. Yazidi slaves, kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 in Sinjar in Iraq, have been found among those leaving Baghuz. These include traumatized children. Locals have also reported they found at least one mass grave, and videos have appeared showing ISIS massacring civilians. This area of the Euphrates was not only a conduit for ISIS to sell Yazidis as slaves, it was also where they had massacred members of the local al-Shaitat tribe. The area of Abu Hamam up river from Baghuz was badly affected by the ISIS massacre of the locals.
While the battle for Baghuz was supposed to begin in January, the SDF discovered that there are up to 10,000 people in the small ISIS enclave and some of them were families. Over the last 38 days convoys have helped extract those who wanted to leave. Men have been screened and women and children brought to an IDP camp. The SDF has also negotiated with ISIS for the release of SDF hostages that ISIS had captured in battles last year. More than 24 SDF members were liberated prior to the commencement of the final battle.
Video on Friday showed SDF members looking over a tablet-style computer at night with a map of the area, plotting the battle.
Gunfire could be heard in the morning as houses were cleared. While the last battle unfolds, much of what comes next is unclear. There has been little in the way of commitment from the members of the Coalition for housing the former ISIS members or a plan to de-radicalize and prosecute them. Yazidi activists in Sinjar protested on Friday, demanding answers about the 3,000 Yazidis who are still missing. Nadia Murad and the Yazidi organization Yazda posted a statement recalling the murder of 5,000 Yazidis in 2014 and the abduction of 6,000. They want answers in Baghuz about the fate of their loved ones.